Conversations through journalism

January 29, 2015

  The effective relay of information has been prevalent to every functioning society. National Geographic found cave paintings in Indonesia dating nearly 40,000 years ago–meaning that in a sense, journalism has been prevalent since man spawned 40,000 years ago. Communication of ideas and events began as oral storytelling and cave art, then clay tablets and print and eventually exploded in radio, television and the internet. Though the mediums have evolved, the chronicler has always been revered as the axle, allowing communities to exchange information with one another.

Although intended to report the facts, journalism has an indisputable influence over the course of the nation’s history. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Historical Office, “yellow journalism” was coined in 1895 as the practice of writing in satirical or biased manner emphasizing an audiences’ reaction over objective facts. During its heyday in the late 19th century, yellow journalism was one of many factors that tipped the United States and Spain decision to declare war on Cuba and the Philippines in 1898.

This influence did not slow as time progressed. As more tools became available, the media utilized all of them to converse with the public. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats”  used the new concept of radio journalism to comfort the overwrought nation during the crisis of the 1930’s. Three decades later, America became disgusted and cynical with its government as the media brought to light the horrors of war in Vietnam and exposed the Watergate scandal. Journalists were trusted mediators between the people and the news.

Naturally, this was similar situation throughout the globe. Journalists, wherever they were placed, were the gatekeepers of information. They had complete control over their audiences’ conversation; what they wrote, the people talked about, and it was a one way discussion. This allowed for the dispersion of material to remain in the hands of an elite few: all professionally educated, most fortunate to be headquartered in a first world country and had a team of more professionals fact checking and editing. Broadcasting an event has always been a very structured, involved process with a clear end in mind: let the public know what is happening.


In 2010, this power shifted in a way that was unforeseen and astonishing. A new type of journalism appeared, one that derived organically from the people. Just five years ago, BBC told its listeners, an unemployed man named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself after officials stopped him from selling vegetables in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Paired with a widespread discontentment at a poor economy backed by a corrupt government, Bouazizi’s public suicide incited protests ultimately resulting in the downfall of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. It also tipped many other surrounding countries such as Egypt over the edge into a revolution. This changed not only the political landscape of these areas, but the way it was received. What became known as the Arab Spring was not reported through long winded articles and broadcasts. It was chronicled by NPR’s  Andy Carvin via Twitter. Material was spilled out to the world continuously, in real time.

Carvin’s tweets were coming directly from the citizens themselves.  Instead of a one way discussion, news became a global conversation. “It’s kind of like running a newsroom on Twitter that’s become transparent,” Carvin told NPR’s Neal Conan during an interview,“and rather than having news staff fulfilling the roles of producers, editors, researchers, etc., I have my Twitter followers playing all of those roles. So it ends up becoming this rather large, convoluted media literacy experiment in many ways.” As an example, he tells Conan about how helpful it was to have followers with an expertise in local dialects. Carvin says, “When we first received videos that were reportedly out of Libya, you know, it was understandable that some news networks, they were hesitant to show them because … there are so few people who’ve experienced covering Libya. But my Twitter volunteers would come out of the woodwork and say … if you hear what they’re chanting, you can tell it’s a Libyan accent from the way they pronounce the letter G rather than the letter Q.” Although maybe not formally educated in the traditional sense, this community possessed the expertise that Carvin needed and were able to enlighten him through online interaction.

Carvin’s use of social media as a legitimate news source impacted the role of journalism greatly and consequently, the political landscape. According to ProCon.org,  more than a quarter of United States voters younger than 30 (including 37 percent of those 18-24 years old) reported they obtained information about the 2008 Presidential campaign from social media. More than 40 percent of global religious leaders are active on Twitter, including the Pope and the Dalai Lama. With the events in Ferguson, MO fresh in so many minds, it is undeniable the influence that places such as Tumblr and BuzzFeed have had on invoking revolution throughout the country. As hashtags such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #NoJusticeNoPeace circulated, they created awareness for a community, as well as developments of the scene for those not physically there.

In response to the Iranian government’s censorship of their citizens’ social media during the Arab Spring, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded, “The United States believes passionately and strongly in the basic principle of free expression… And it is the case that one of the means of expression, the use of Twitter is a very important one, not only to the Iranian people, but now increasingly to people around the world and most particularly to young people…”

When critics resent social media for breeding the “me generation”, they neglect to acknowledge the good that has come out of it. Young people are not inherently vapid or narcissistic. They are the future, and they are using the tools of their times to make the future one worth being a part of.”

When the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred just a few weeks ago, they instilled fear throughout the entire city of Paris, France–not only for those afraid of the attackers, but for Muslims who were disgusted by these actions made in their name. Social media united people throughout the world as one voice declaring that intolerance and infringement of a basic freedom is not something they will stand for. As British writer and actor Stephan Fry tweeted, “Publish a Charlie Hebdo cartoon: show them the pen will still flourish when their guns have rusted. #JeSuisCharlie”. This hashtag translating to “I am Charlie” was expressed by dozens of celebrities and regular citizens alike on social media.

This is not to say that there are no downsides to utilizing social media as journalism. Like any other tool, it can be used improperly and cause harm. Everyone possesses the ability to be a publisher, even the fanatics, manipulative and attention seeking. Years ago, when journalists had complete control over content, there were rules set in stone, and the reader always knew where the news came from. Now, the reader must use discretion. They themselves might even have to take on the role of a journalist, digging for the truth about an event. Despite a need for a filter, it is hard to argue that social media has harmed society for this reason. Good things happen when people, regardless of class, country or gender, use all available mediums to band together for change.

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